The End of Barney's, The Store That Made Us Lust for Fashion
This is the point in the bankruptcy saga of Barneys New York when the fashion world mourns. It’s also the point at which everyone else wonders: Didn’t they see this coming?
Last week, a New York judge declared Authentic Brands Group the winner in the $271.4 million sale of the luxury specialty store. ABG, a licensing company, plans to close the existing stores, liquidate the merchandise and license the name to Saks Fifth Avenue, which will then sell Barneys-branded merchandise. Barneys New York will be boiled down to its essence: an idea.
The deal that Ben-Avraham was trying to pull together was firmly rooted in the mythology of Barneys as a shopping destination like no other. Central to his argument — and his #savebarneys social media campaign — was the idea that the store was a cultural institution, a hub for a uniquely New York form of creativity, intellectualism and sophistication. In his accounting, Barneys New York was a place, not merely a sensibility.
Barneys was unique at a time when there were a fair number of unique department stores. Bloomingdale’s had its bonkers special events, steeped in Broadway inspiration and mass-appeal frivolity, Macy’s was the store of abundance; it was stocked with everything a shopper could imagine. Henri Bendel was high fashion for very skinny women. Barneys built a reputation on its embrace of avant-garde fashion, its devotion to 50 shades of black, its championing of new designers and its seeming willingness to put creativity above everything else.
The store excelled at a time when fashion was elitist and its elitism only made people want it more. That was the selling point of Barneys in its heyday; it’s what distinguished it from other department stores. It wasn’t a place to make you feel more comfortable; it was a place that encouraged you to stand up straighter and try to impress others — or really just yourself. It might have induced insecurity in some folks; it made others aspire.
Today, fashion is blissfully more democratic, more welcoming. Less aspirational. Stores that try to dictate get a stern dressing down on social media. The terrain shifted and Barneys began to wobble.
A lot of things happened to send Barneys tumbling. Some of it was of the store’s own making. It overextended itself with outposts across the country. It declared bankruptcy in 1996. It was sold and sold again. The Pressmans left. Management changed, and with each change, the store’s personality was tweaked. Its edge got buffed down, as did some of its creative panache.
Barneys couldn’t control other stressors, such as the growth of e-commerce or the stranglehold that athleisure and streetwear put on the clothing business. How does a luxury retailer find the right mix when an entire industry seems to be riffing on sneakers, track pants and hoodies? Barneys has its website. It had plenty of merchandise that is surprising. It brought in new names such as Koché and Marine Serre and continued to support its long time favourites such as Dries Van Noten and Azzedine Alaïa. But that wasn’t enough.